I first came to talk about torture under the guidance of Kanan Makiya,
an exiled Iraqi dissident who spent the late 1980s and early 1990s
writing under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil for fear of assassination
by Saddam’s henchmen on the streets of London, Boston or New York. In a
seminar entitled “Describing Cruelty,” Kanan traced the lineage of
torture, its application as an instrument of lustration during the
Middle Ages, its seeming disappearance during the 19th century, and its
re-emergence in the 20th as a tool of state interrogation. He discussed
torture’s role in literature, its imagining in art, its memorials, and
finally, its ethics. Could, as the Israeli Supreme Court once ruled,
“moderate physical pressure” be applied to a subject if it would help
uncover “a ticking bomb”? The paradoxical moral touchstone to which
Kanan constantly referred when raising such questions was the adage by
Montaigne, seconded by Judith Shklar, that a liberal society must hate
The photos of hooded, naked Iraqis being attacked by dogs, dragged by neck-collars, burned by light-bulbs, and suffering other monstrous forms of abuse is troubling confirmation that torture, the most terrible of liberal vices, has not receded in the 21st century. There are, at this point, two possible and yet equally despicable explanations of the conduct of the American troops in Abu Ghraib and other prisons: The first is that these guards and interrogators were left under-supervised and under-trained and resorted to the sadism of power-drunk fraternity pledge-masters, who see no reason to stop the debasement, humiliation, and torment of people perceived as fundamentally inferior. There is no shortage of psychological evidence, beginning with the famous Milligram experiments at Stanford, to attest to the ability of the human psyche to adopt cruelty when given the proper stimuli.
The second is that these men and women were not under-supervised, but over supervised, that some segment of the military intelligence hierarchy decided that psychological and physical pressure can and should be applied to coerce confessions, despite Geneva Convention’s prohibition of such steps. Again, there is a posteriori evidence from the British in Ireland and the French in Algeria that even extremely professional militaries came to such conclusions when faced with a protracted counter-insurgency struggle.
In either case, the bureaucratic ass-covering has already begun, with the soon-to-be court-martialed soldiers saying they were just following orders (alas, such feeble defenses have not yet been erased from the world’s vocabulary), those further up the chain of command saying that they had no idea such atrocities were committed, and those at the top, Generals Meyers, Sanchez, and Kimmit, along with Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush, issuing carefully worded apologies.
This time, however, the Bush administration cannot be excused. I, for one, strongly supported the administration during the last dinner-theater production of the 9/11 Commission, pointing out the Bill Clinton had eight years to try to thwart jihadis set on massacring Americans and failed utterly. I also whole-heartedly applauded Bush’s decision to depose the Taliban and Ba’th regimes. But the disaster of Abu Ghraib is a product of this administration, perpetrated by men and women under its command, aided by a civilian-contractor system championed by Secretary Rumsfeld. The resignations of senior Defense Department officials, up to and including Secretary Rumsfeld, are in order, because ultimately their policy contributed to the shame wrought on the military uniform and the pain suffered by the detained Iraqis.
But let us not take too seriously the claims of those who have for so long called Ariel Sharon a Nazi and Zionism racism, and who now all too eagerly liken President Bush into a second Saddam and the U.S. into another Ba’th regime. Sudan, for instance, a serial genocider currently seated at the United Nations Human Rights Commission took time out from its current campaign of eradicating blacks in Dharfur to quip that America had no grounds to complain considering its human rights “vulnerabilities.” The purveyors of this (im)moral equivalence never needed an excuse to bash America and bait Jews, although one wonders what all the fuss is about considering that they were content to leave the real Saddam in power. Further on the extreme, the video-taped decapitation of Nick Berg by al-Qa’ida, purportedly “retribution” for the mistreatment at Abu Ghraib rings hollow since Daniel Pearl suffered the same fate two years ago simple for being a Jew. Those who detest democracy and abhor the Americans who trumpet it will be hardly affected either way; Abu Ghraib did not prove them right or us wrong.
Kanan Makiya returned to Baghdad last year to begin his next project, the collection and archiving of the literally millions of pages of Ba’th government documents detailing the regime’s decisions to burn-down villages and eliminate families. Over a year since the fall of the regime, Iraqis continue to uncover mass-graves dug in the shadows of the palaces that Saddam’s family built using “donations” of deutschmarks, rubles, and francs skimmed off the top of the U.N.’s oil for food program.
The United States is not infallible and its has absolutely failed in Abu Ghraib. The best that can be done now is to demonstrate to the world that the system of checks and balances functions precisely to root-out such failures. Congress must actively and publicly question and then pursue the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld. The courts must actively and publicly investigate those directly involved in the abuse. They must be made examples of, punished severely, and they must be shamed. Outside observers, both Iraqi human rights monitors and officials of the International Red Cross, must be admitted to all U.S. detention facilities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Abu Ghraib Prison must be imploded both figuratively and literally, its poisonous bowels exposed once and for all to the gaze of the Iraqi people, so that they may know that such an edifice will never be rebuilt.
Ariel I. Ahram is a doctoral candidate in the departments of Arab studies and government at Georgetown University.